Something to Talk About

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 2008). This was the last of my annual “ten best” pieces for the Reader. — J.R.

If I were playing by the usual rules, the contenders for my best of 2007 list would be drawn from the titles only millionaires could afford to promote. In that case, I would say 2007 was the worst year for new movies I could remember. But I’d be fudging, because I didn’t come close to seeing all the contenders.

Who did? Film Comment recently put together a list of eligible titles for its own annual poll. It’s 105 pages long, with roughly 23 films per page — more than 2,400 titles. “Major studios” released 119 films, or about one-twentieth of the total (I saw 33 of them), and 49 more came from “specialty divisions” (I saw 22 of those). “Independent distributors” were behind nearly 500 (90 of which I saw). The remaining 1,600-plus titles came out of festivals (where I saw about 50 not included in the other lists).

At least 30 of the movies I saw were so forgettable that I had to look them up in the Reader’s movie database to remind myself what they were about.… Read more »

Expatriate Filmmaking, For Better and For Worse

From Stop Smiling, issue 36, 2008. — J.R.

It’s easy to argue that most of the greatest filmmakers in the history of movies can’t be reduced to single nationalities, and that an uncommon number of them worked as expatriates. “I’m not at home anywhere,” declares Friedrich Munro (Patrick Bauchau), the expatriate director-hero in Wim Wenders’ underrated The State of Things (1982) — shooting an apocalyptic SF film in a remote corner of Portugal until money suddenly runs out and he has to chase down the producer (Allen Garfield) in Hollywood, who appears to be fleeing from the Mafia. This line is actually a quote from a real-life, very great German expatriate director with a similar name, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. And it might be argued that a condition of homelessness has helped more major filmmakers than it’s hurt, maybe because it’s forced them to reinvent themselves — a process that has also often entailed reinventing their cinema.

Some examples of this tendency may not be immediately obvious. Luis Buñuel is usually regarded as quintessentially Spanish, yet he only made three films that fully qualify as Spanish — a short documentary called Land without Bread (1932) and two features, Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970).… Read more »

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: WILD AT HEART

This review appeared in the Autumn 1990 issue of Sight and Sound.–- J.R.

WILD AT HEART

Dedicated to the memory of the late noir writer Charles Willeford, Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart is a lovely little novel about youthful passions, dashed hopes and intricate cross-purposes in a redneck milieu. Split into 45 chapters over a mere 159 pages, it charts the cross-country flight of Sailor and Lula, a recent parolee and his girlfriend, from her hysterical mother, proceeding from the Carolinas to New Orleans to Texas in a picaresque journey that, in the tradition of the eighteenth-century novel, has plenty of room for interpolated stories. More literary in a self-conscious way than Willeford at his best (e.g., Sideswipe), it imparts a similar feeling for the vernacular poetry of despair and the way certain people live, think and speak. (‘The woman wouldn’t be fifty for two or three years yet and she acted like life forgot her address.’)

It is hard to imagine a commercial film that could respect the book’s form; and to find a commercial filmmaker who could respect its characters, milieu and feelings, one would have to look for someone like the Nicholas Ray of They Live By Night.… Read more »

The Russia House

From the Chicago Reader (December 1, 1990). Twilight Time has recently released this on Blu-Ray. — J.R.

russia

Glasnost or no glasnost, the cold war still rages here for CIA officials, who manage to ensnare a British publisher and jazz musician (Sean Connery) in a plot to intercept a book by a distinguished Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer); the scientist has spilled the beans about the Soviet defense program, and his book editor (Michelle Pfeiffer) becomes an unwitting pawn in the spy network. Part of what makes this a top-notch thriller (as well as a touching love story) is the literacy and intelligence of the dialogue, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard from John Le Carre’s novel; another part is the taut professionalism of director Fred Schepisi, who knows precisely when to cut away to eavesdropping spies or fleeting flashbacks in order to add flavor or tension. But the film has many other virtues as well: the most thoroughgoing and effective use of Moscow and Leningrad locations ever in an American film, a good score by Jerry Goldsmith (with Branford Marsalis dubbing Connery’s soprano sax solos), first-rate performances from the leads (Pfeiffer is especially fine), and a well-trained secondary cast including Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, Michael Kitchen, J.T.… Read more »

Don’t Judge a Film by Its Venue [BLACK BOOK & OFFSIDE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 20, 2007).  The severe sentencing of Jafar Panahi, the director of Offside, after this article was published makes his remarkable filmmaking more vital and relevant than ever. — J.R.


BLACK BOOK ****

DIRECTED BY PAUL VERHOEVEN

WRITTEN BY GERARD SOETEMAN AND VERHOEVEN

WITH CARICE VAN HOUTEN, SEBASTIAN KOCH, THOM HOFFMAN, HALINA REIJN, WALDEMAR KOBUS, AND DEREK DE LINT

OFFSIDE ****

DIRECTED BY JAFAR PANAHI

WRITTEN BY PANAHI AND SHADMEHR RASTIN

WITH SIMA MOBARAK SHAHI, SAFAR SAMANDAR, SHAYESTEH IRANI, M. KHEYRABADI, and IDA SADEGHI

The recent successes of such films as Pan’s Labyrinth, Volver, and The Lives of Others at multiplexes is a welcome sign that art-house ghettos aren’t the only places for foreign-language films anymore. Art houses, like multiplexes, tend to foster certain expectations about the movies we go to see in them, and sometimes we miss out on what a film has to offer as a consequence. Paul Verhoeven’s big-budget drama Black Book, which opened last week at the Music Box and is now also playing at some more commercial venues, and Jafar Panahi’s low-budget comedy Offside, which opens this week at the Music Box, both confound expectations.

Black Book – about a sexy Jewish singer who poses as a Nazi to help the Dutch resistance during World War II — is a Hollywood movie in every respect but its nationality, and more professionally cast, directed, and paced than most.… Read more »

Austin Notebook: South by Southwest, 2010

From the Summer 2010 issue of Film Quarterly (vol. 63, no. 4). — J.R.

The typical challenge of any film festival report is to create a fictional narrative out of thin air, or a meaningful proposition out of chaos. And this becomes even harder in an era when layoffs of various film reviewers have coincided with a continuing erasure of any clear line separating criticism from advertising in most mainstream venues. The task isn’t far removed from the sort of pretense routinely made by reviewers, myself included, who presume to write ten-best round-ups at year’s end, overlooking the pre-selections already made by distributors and marketers and often arriving at unwarranted global conclusions based on the very finite sampling of what one has seen. This becomes only more obvious and arbitrary when it comes to generalizing about the handful of films one sees at a festival out of several dozens or hundreds, and then creating a narrative thread or some sort of thesis that can connect them all like beads on a string — a process that for me stands out in even greater relief since I retired from regular reviewing in early 2008.South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, commonly known as SXSW, is a combined film festival and “interactive” media conference held for both cinephiles and film professionals, followed immediately by a music festival that’s even bigger.

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REAL LIFE (1979)

Written for The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S., a catalogue/collection put together to accompany a film series at the Austrian Filmmuseum and the Viennale in Autumn 2009. — J.R.

The brassy and obnoxious show-biz type that
Albert Brooks plays in his first and funniest feature
(1979) –- so close to Brooks’s own public persona that
he’s called Albert Brooks –- professes to be impervious
to all the self-consciousness that engulfs him.
Even when he’s shooting an extended documentary
about the life of a “typical” family in Phoenix,
Arizona in the style of the infamous 1973 cinéma-
vérité TV series An American Family, he claims
that anything the family does in front of the camera is
“right,” without ever admitting that the acute self-consciousness
created by his film and camera crew
ultimately has more to do with movies than with real
life. Charles Grodin brilliantly plays the animal
doctor at the head of this family, and Brooks is so
skillful at juggling all the mannerisms of pseudo-documentary
and all the specious claims of pop psychology
that his periodic and compulsive regressions to
old-time show business -– whether it’s the big-time
pop vocal in the opening sequence or the conflagration
inspired by Gone with the Wind at the
end –- manage to be both welcome and ludicrous.… Read more »

Movie Heaven [DEFENDING YOUR LIFE]

From the Chicago Reader (April 5, 1991), and reprinted in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. — J.R.

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Albert Brooks

With Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant, and Buck Henry.

From the very titles of his four comedy features, we know that Albert Brooks is both a serious and an honest filmmaker, because each one is a precise and accurate indication of what the movie is about: Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, and Defending Your Life. But what makes Brooks funny is much harder to get at or agree on.


You can’t demonstrate how funny Albert Brooks is by quoting any of his one-liners, the way you can the vastly more popular and respected Woody Allen. And you can’t say that Brooks is funnier than Allen if you’re measuring by the average number of laughs produced. (I find most of Modern Romance too painfully accurate to laugh at, although the comic conception remains flawless; and even though the laughs come more readily in Brooks’s other pictures, the degree of emotional pain being seriously dealt with is well beyond Allen’s range.) Nevertheless, I think Brooks is the best comic writer-director-actor we have in this country at the moment — certainly the most original and thoughtful, and the one who has the most to tell us about who we are.… Read more »

Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser

The core of Charlotte Zwerin’s exciting if vexing 1989 documentary about the great jazz pianist and composer — brought to us courtesy of Clint Eastwood, executive producer — is drawn from 14 hours of footage of Monk, in performance and offstage, shot by Michael and Christian Blackwood over six months in 1968. The musical value of this footage is so powerful that nothing can deface it, despite the best efforts of Zwerin to do so: all the worst habits of jazz documentaries in treating the music, from cutting off numbers midstream to burying them with voice-overs (which also happens on the sound track album), are routinely employed; adding insult to injury are the merely adequate performances (by contemporary piano duo Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris) of two unabridged Monk tunes. The offstage footage of Monk and the accounts by friends and family of the mental illness that plagued his final years aren’t very illuminating — though here the film at least has the virtue of not presuming to tread beyond the limits of its understanding — and there’s virtually no analysis of the importance of Monk’s music on a technical level. Still, given the magnificence of much of the film’s musical footage, this is mainly quibbling: Monk is heard playing close to two dozen tunes, most of them his own compositions, with his talented quartet and octet in concerts, at rehearsals, and at one recording session, and much of this is remarkable.… Read more »

The Way It Was [WOODSTOCK]

I’m not sure why, but it seems like Woodstock has rarely gotten its due as a film. This review for the Chicago Reader ran on August 12, 1994, while I was working in New York on the New York Film Festival’s selection committee, and I recall that as a consequence I had to write and get most of this piece edited in Chicago well in advance. A little bit of it is recycled from the first paragraph of an article, “What Dope Does to Movies,” that I wrote for Grass: The Paged Experience, the 2001 book spinoff of Ron Mann ‘s documentary Grass — an update and revision of an article I wrote for High Times 15 years earlier. –J.R.

WOODSTOCK ****  (Masterpiece)

Directed by Michael Wadleigh

With Richie Havens, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, Sha Na Na, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Ten Years After, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Who, John Sebastian, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.

Michael Wadleigh’s epic documentary Woodstock (1970) has been reviewed often as an event, a symbol, and a cause, but it’s seldom been considered strictly as a movie; yet on this score it’s light-years beyond anything on the 60s counterculture ever released by a Hollywood studio.… Read more »

Theme and Variations [THE LOVERS OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE]

From the Chicago Reader, May 14, 1999. —J.R.

The Lovers of the Arctic Circle

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Julio Medem

With Fele Martinez, Najwa Nimri, Nancho Novo, Maru Valdivielso, Peru Medem, Sara Valiente, Victor Hugo Oliveira, and Kristel Diaz.

Julio Medem’s fourth feature is a love story spanning 17 years — from the time Otto and Ana first meet, as children in a Spanish school yard, to their improbable reunion in the wilds of northern Finland when they’re 25. But the film starts at the end rather than the beginning, and like the names of the two characters, the story can be read backward as well as forward. That story is told by Otto and Ana in alternate bursts, inflected mainly by how Otto views Ana and vice versa, skipping back and forth in time. To make things trickier, the two versions of what happens are sometimes at variance.

When The Lovers of the Arctic Circle joined Open Your Eyes at the Fine Arts last week, it became possible to conclude, with a sigh of relief, that the age of Pedro Almodovar was finally over. I don’t mean that Almodovar won’t continue to make movies or get American distribution, but that his brand of smart-aleck entertainment will no longer have to stand for the whole of Spanish cinema.… Read more »

Trapped in Time: Alain Resnais’ JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME

Written for Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray of the film, released on November 10, 2015. — J.R

jetaime-WATCHES

jetaime_BEACH2

Alain Resnais (1922-2014) was the most experimental and adventurous of all the French New Wave directors, but he has rarely been recognized as such, perhaps because he stood apart from his (mainly younger) colleagues in other respects as well. Unlike Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer, he wasn’t a critic or a writer, although as a teenager during the German Occupation of France he was already serving as a mentor to their own critical mentor, André Bazin, by introducing him to silent cinema in general and Fritz Lang in particular. He also preceded them all as a director in the eight remarkable non-fiction shorts he made between 1948 and 1958, the first of which (Van Gogh) won him his only Oscar. Indeed, the moment one compares these innovative shorts to the early sketches of Godard, Rivette, et al., the clearer it becomes that Resnais was already a courageous radical, both formally and politically, long before such a position even occurred to his colleagues. And one could argue that he was also already a film critic and film historian on his own elected turf, namely sound and image, even if he didn’t exhibit his exquisite cinematic taste in writing.… Read more »

The Sound of German

From the Chicago Reader (December 2, 1988); also reprinted in my collection Essential Cinema. — J.R.

empedocles

THE DEATH OF EMPEDOCLES

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

With Andreas von Rauch, Howard Vernon, William Berger, Vladimir Baratta, Martina Baratta, and Ute Cremer.

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Three pretentious but relevant quotes: “Aesthetics are the ethics of the future” (Lenin). “To make a revolution also means to put back into place things that are very ancient but forgotten” (Charles Peguy). “When the Green of the Earth Will Shine Freshly for You” (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s subtitle for The Death of Empedocles).

empedokles5

For spectators who don’t know what to do with their films, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet offer a rigorous program that’s all work and no play — a grueling process of wrestling with intractable texts, often in languages that one doesn’t understand, without the interest provided by easy-to-read characters or compelling plots. But in fact every one of Straub-Huillet’s 15 films to date (10 features and 5 shorts) offers an arena of play as well as work, and opportunities for sensual enjoyment as well as analytical reflection. To find this arena of play and pleasure, one has to go beyond what we usually associate with the enjoyment of culture–beyond parameters that are usually limited by mutually exclusive notions of “art,” “entertainment,” “education,” and “scholarship,” notions that generally make us smile or groan in advance, regardless of what is placed in front of us.… Read more »

Once It Was Fire: Introduction to a Straub-Huillet Retrospective (1982)

Prior to the recently held retrospective devoted to Jean-Marie Straub and the late Danièle Huillet at the Museum of Modern Art in May and June, the only previous such retrospective was held on November 2-14, 1982, at New York’s Public Theater. I curated this event, which also included a selection of films by others made by Jean-Marie and Danièle to show with their own. For the occasion, I also edited a 20-page, tabloid-sized catalogue, long out of print, and what follows are (1) the full program as planned and (2) my introduction. Regarding (1), I recall now that there was one last-minute addition, their recently completed short film En rachâchant (see second photograph below), as well as some last-minute omissions or substitutions that are noted in the text below. Regarding (2), I should emphasize that a lot has changed and developed over the past three decades, both in myself and in Straub-Huillet’s work –- in both cases, I’d like to think, for the better. It’s cheering to note that no less than three very substantial books have appeared over the past few months devoted to their work, two in English  — their Writings (as translated and edited by Sally Shafto, published in New York by Sequence Press), and an excellent critical collection edited by Ted Fendt for the Austrian Filmmuseum — and a mammoth collection in French, Internationale Straubienne, published jointly by Editions de l’Oeil and the Centre Pompidou (to accompany their own retrospective, which may be still in progress).Read more »

29th Chicago International Film Festival: Mired in the Present

From the Chicago Reader (October 8 , 1993). — J.R.

Let’s start with the bad news, which also happens to be the good news. With the erosion of state funding virtually everywhere and the concomitant streamlining of many film festivals toward certifiable hits — basically what an audience already knows, or worse, what it thinks it knows — there isn’t a great deal of difference anymore between the lineups of most large international festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, and even Chicago. By and large, the critics at Toronto last month, myself included, who thought it was an unusually good festival were those who hadn’t made it to the previous three big festivals.

film-parpaillon2

pointdedepart

ThePuppetmaster

suture1

Some films don’t make every list, of course. Luc Moullet, probably the most gifted comic filmmaker working in France, almost never seems to attract international interest, and I was disappointed to discover that his delightful Parpaillon, which I saw in Rotterdam, was passed over by Toronto, Chicago, and New York. The same goes for Robert Kramer’s Starting Place, which I saw in Locarno — a beautifully edited and moving personal documentary about contemporary Vietnam. I’m also sorry that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster and an intriguing American independent effort called Suture, both of which I saw in Toronto, are missing from the Chicago roster.… Read more »